Set your GPS and get set for Italian succulence

CorrespondentApril 1, 2011 

  • 604 West Morgan St., Durham (note: entrance is at 604 Fernway Ave.)

    680-6333

    www.604westmorgan.com

    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: rustically romantic, in a converted tobacco warehouse

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: variable

    Recommended: octopus salad, calamari, risotto, lamb ragu, veal chop, fish special

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted (including tables on the patio)

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

It was partly my fault. OK, is was mostly my fault. I knew that the entrance to 604 West Morgan faces an enclosed courtyard in West Village, a residential, office and retail complex in a cluster of repurposed 19th-century tobacco warehouses near downtown Durham. And the restaurant's website does point out that the entrance and parking are at 604 Fernway Ave., a block over from 604 West Morgan's namesake street.

I managed to overlook that last crucial detail and found myself at the wrong 604. By the time I realized my mistake and navigated Durham's notoriously confusing one way streets to the right one, I found myself wondering whether "NOT 604 West Morgan" might have made a better name for the restaurant.

Actually, there are two restaurants at this address. In the adjoining space, Cinelli's Pizzeria & Restaurant offers a more casual alternative to the white tablecloth setting and upscale Italian fare at 604 West Morgan.

The restaurants are a venture between rookie restaurateur Sean Shea and seasoned veteran Gaitano Cinelli, who share the sprawling space vacated by Tosca last summer. The new restaurants share a kitchen, with Cinelli turning out the New York style pizzas and Italian-American fare, while Johnson & Wales-trained chef Rob Sumber serves up a more ambitious offering.

Sumber's grilled octopus salad alone is worth seeking out 604 West Morgan, even if you have to reprogram your GPS to find the place. Exceptionally tender and lightly charred, the octopus is joined by shrimp, scallops and lobster (a bonus not mentioned on the menu) over a tangle of arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved fennel in a lemon oil vinaigrette.

Fried calamari, served with a spicy marinara of San Marzano tomatoes, are exemplary. The chef has mastered the art of risotto, too, judging by a recent version that was studded with wild mushrooms and showered with shreds of duck confit. Offered as a nightly changing special, the risotto is available as an appetizer or entree.

Variable portions

If you're looking for something to nibble alongside one of the two dozen by-the-glass options from 604 West Morgan's Italian-leaning list, you could do worse than bruschetta topped with a creamy bean puree and a dab of olive tapenade. Just don't let the $11 price fool you into thinking you'll get a big, shareable platter. That tariff gets you three bruschetta of average size and some sautéed rapini.

Fortunately, while that price is in line with the rest of the menu (entrees average around $25), the portion size is not. The veal chop will set you back $32, which gets you a thick slab of on-the-bone succulence, topped with a small mountain of sautéed wild mushrooms and ringed by foothills of roasted vegetables. The sea bass oreganato that was served over an exquisitely creamy, delicately crusted polenta cake as a special recently was as generous as it was irreproachably fresh and expertly prepared.

I'd happily shell out another $19 for a reprise of the lamb ragu, an earthy melange of braised shank, chickpeas, caramelized cipollini and roasted carrots over house-made cavatelli that had me smiling with contentment. The same price gets you a first-rate eggplant parmesan (half of which you'll be taking home) with an ample side of pasta.

As you might expect from a chef who worked in fine dining restaurants in New York, miscues are infrequent and minor. The only persistent weaknesses are bread served at the beginning of the meal and the desserts at the end, neither of which lives up to the rest of the meal.

Wait staff learning

Some of the wait staff are still in the learning curve, though most are eager to please. It doesn't hurt that Shea, a financial services executive by day, is in the house most nights. Chances are, he'll meet you by the door on your way out and ask you how you enjoyed your meal. And he'll listen to your answer.

An enthusiastic owner, a talented chef and a rustically romantic dining room (not to mention a leafy, secluded patio that is one of the area's premier al fresco dining spots) make 604 West Morgan a worthy dining destination. Even if you wind up taking the scenic route to get there.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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